Practical Introspection: A Foundation Emerges

January 3, 2013
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Chip Edelsberg

Six-and-one-half years into its philanthropic activity, the Jim Joseph Foundation (JJF) is evolving. It is in the process of becoming one of the major funders of Jewish education in the United States, and it is taking on a personality, creating a perception in the field of a philanthropic enterprise that possesses a certain character.

From its inception, the foundation’s directors and I recognized (if only tacitly) that relationships forged with others would become the basis of an emerging narrative as a funder with lifelike characteristics: We would be approachable, generous, thoughtful, strategic, outcomes-oriented, frugal, formal, bureaucratic, detached, and transactional, or any combination of these attributes, among others.

With this knowledge, the foundation deliberately sought to define itself relationally. In our first six months of existence, we invited ten thought leaders (madrichim) to advise us how to effectively award $25 million per year. We invited scholars to help deepen our understanding of the field of education — including those from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, which conducted a landscape analysis of Jewish education. We networked broadly in the field of philanthropy — the Jewish Funders Network, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the Council on Foundations, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, and others — and sought advice. We sought to identify philanthropic best practices that we could emulate.

Throughout the years, the foundation has convened grantees and others to reflect on important issues in the field of Jewish education. For example, in October 2012, we gathered together a second group of madrichim; each brought a “big idea” for Jewish education. The group met with the foundation’s directors and various community leaders in a professionally facilitated discussion on maximizing our philanthropic effectiveness. Throughout these convenings, we emphasized conversation, interaction, learning, and relationship building. Constant introspection about our practices — particularly with experts and leaders in the field — is indicative of our concerted attempt to achieve sustained philanthropic effectiveness.

Relationships are key to the foundation and to me as its senior executive. Constructive, trusting relationships with JJF directors, professionals, and staff, as well as with funder colleagues and grantee personnel, evaluators and consultants enable the foundation to leverage its financial and human capital. And my studies in liberal arts, pedagogy, and education acquainted me with a broad fare of literature that speaks evocatively to the generative and restorative powers of community.

We have learned that risks are inherent in working relationally. When a foundation grantee performs poorly and funding is curtailed, it invariably strains relations. If co-funders find the foundation demanding or difficult to work with, it taxes the relationship that helped to make co-funding possible. There are neither prescriptions nor standards that tell a foundation how to work relationally. Nevertheless, it has been instructive for us to learn that we are smarter when we network with others. Collaboration has become a key to understanding our identity as a foundation. And, like others in the field, we continue to learn and share what we learn.

Good intentions abound in philanthropy,  but evidence of systemic change — at least in Jewish education — is scant, which is disappointing. In an effort to stay focused on our goals and to achieve a modicum of meaningful, enduring improvement in Jewish education, the foundation reaches out to foundations and funders that are in a position to make consequential decisions about the field. We also partner with others to publically share practices — both good and bad — in the hope that the messaging is powerful and persuasive. Joining the broader philanthropic sector in strategic partnering amplifies an individual funder’s effectiveness and impact. We’ve experimented and learned that deliberative co-funding increases collective impact. The literature on high-stakes collaboration — which we integrate into our processes of decision-making — asserts that funders working intelligently together can trump a funder flying solo.

Jewish values infuse our work. So much of what makes us who we are as Jews — Judaism’s scared texts, faith rituals, and communal norms — dispose us to work hand-in-hand with others. Internally, staff members study Jewish texts together. We strive to be in a posture of wonder and discovery, surrendering the “unquestioned authority, the freedom to practice without challenge to competence, the comfort of relative invulnerability, the gratification of deference”1 that the privilege of being employed at a major foundation too often confers on its professionals. Our instinct is to view  collective action and authentic interpersonal encounters — for example, the intense conversation between teacher and student and among students themselves — as essential components of a life fully lived.

Examining our competencies is important in the process of becoming who we are. We invite grantees to complete grantee perception reports. Senior personnel of organizations with which we contract are interviewed in an effort to probe their assessment of our grantmaking strengths and weaknesses. I confer with a mentor, seeking a critique of my performance. As a Jewish philanthropy, we learn with and from others in order to mitigate complacency and false confidence in the “goodness” of the foundation’s grants. Reaching new points of success is more likely if philanthropy is implemented in a “relational way” based on partnerships and collaboration.

1Donald Schon,The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, p. 299)

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Charles (Chip) Edelsberg is the founding executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, a $700-million-dollar private foundation whose mission is to support the education of Jewish youth in the United States. Previously, Edelsberg served as director of endowments and vice president for the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and as executive director of the historic congregation Temple Tifereth Israel. He and his wife of 38 years, Leslie, are the proud parents of sons Eric and Zack, and they hold in their hearts the memory of their daughter, Allie, z”l.

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